St. Paul, Minn. — St. Paul resident Kristen Edlund is in her late 20s. She's developed carpal tunnel syndrome in her current job, and is interested in becoming a veterinary technician. That brought her to Globe College, located in an Oakdale strip mall.
"I've been looking at some facilities and just trying to find what is available," she said. "I'm really impressed with what's here, and the availability and class size, that's very important."
Edlund says she looked at the University of Minnesota and another private for-profit school, but likes Globe.
Edlund represents a sector of the student population that's expected to grow in coming years as the traditional 18-22 year old college age students level off.
Students like Edlund are the reason in the past four years enrollment at for-profit schools jumped 61 percent. Enrollment at the state's public colleges and universities during that time increased only 14 percent.
Some for-profit colleges are trying to buck the vocational school reputation with programs leading to bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees. However, tuition and fees are about three times the cost of a comparable course of study at a state college.
Jeanne Herrmann of the Minnesota Career Colleges Association says students choose career colleges over less expensive public schools for several reasons.
The ones that we've seen ... are offering a shadow of a degree of what you would get on a real college campus.
She says career colleges offer more flexible hours and are more aggressive about placing their graduates in jobs. Herrmann says the state's career schools have an average 85 percent placement rate.
"It will always be the mission of our schools; we're career colleges," she said. "It's what we strive for, it's our outcome, it's what we do."
Herrmann says many career college students have tried the traditional schools and haven't found success.
But critics claim students at career colleges can't get the quality of education traditional colleges offer.
"The ones that we've seen so far that are offering masters and bachelors degrees are offering a shadow of a degree of what you would get on a real college campus," says Ruth Flower of the American Association of University Professors, based in Washington, D.C.
Flowers says for-profit colleges focus too much on getting students a job at the expense of critical thinking skills.
"It does now apparently mean something on the job to have a degree. But if those degrees don't mean that you know how to think and how to question and how to come up with your own ideas, then they're not going to be useful on the job anymore."
Representatives of for-profit colleges disagree.
The University of Phoenix recently expanded its nationwide chain to the Twin Cities. Phoenix is the nation's largest private university. Profits for its parent company topped $250 million last year.
University of Phoenix's Minnesota director, James Chitwood, says the career college business model is compatible with a quality higher education experience.
"Quality and profit are not mutually exclusive terms," he said. "I can tell you that Porsche makes a profit. Porsche also makes a darn good car. Same thing with Mercedes Benz. The list goes on. It doesn't mean that we don't do it well, it just means that we have the funds to reinvest in our education, and take technology to degrees that many in the universities would love to be able to do."
Minnesota's higher education community is reluctant to criticize for-profit schools, or admit to competing for the same students. But many of the state's public and private colleges are trying to lure non-traditional students with their own online and continuing education programs.